By Joshua Rhee
Many people, from documentary buffs to sea life enthusiasts to simple Seaworld fans, were surprised when Tilikum, the infamous orca in Orlando, Florida was announced dead on January 6th. Although the 35 year-old orca caused quite a lot of controversy, everyone can agree that his death was a sad one.
In March 2016, Seaworld announced that Tilikum was dying of a lung infection. Nine months later, with fluctuating health patterns, he succumbed to the pneumonic infection. The death of Tilikum marks the end of not just this particular performing whale, but the end of captive killer whale shows in Seaworld altogether.
Tilikum was the center of attention for quite a while after the release of the famous documentary Blackfish featuring Seaworld’s very own Tilikum. The documentary brought to light the astoundingly terrible living conditions that captive killer whales and Tilikum, in particular, had to deal with. There was a specific emphasis on Tilikum’s early life and for a good reason. He was kept with other captured killer whales who abused and bullied him. Furthermore, his teeth were whittled down to small stubs from constant chewing on steel bars surrounding his enclosure. The terrible living conditions led to stress and, what many speculate, mental and physical health deterioration.
The inhumane and stressful environment that Tilikum lived in his entire life is one of the most prominent factors to blame for his far-from-clean record. In total, there have been 4 human deaths related to captive orcas, 3 of which have been due to Tilikum’s aggressiveness. The most famous case involves his former keeper, Dawn Brancheau. During a show where she was supposed to interact with the killer whale, she was grabbed and pulled into the water. Despite there being a large crowd, there was no clear witness who was able to tell the exact details of the incident. All that was known was that she was pulled into the water and kept below the surface. An autopsy showed that Brancheau was killed with a combination of drowning and blunt force trauma by being thrown against the enclosure underwater. This clear showing of aggressiveness immediately eliminated the chances of it being a playful accident. The whale continued performing after a year long break following the incident.
On the day of Tilikum’s death, PETA, the People for Ethical Treatment for Animals, publicly tweeted, “R.I.P. Tilikum dead after 3 decades of misery”. While quite blunt, PETA is not wrong that Tilikum lived a life devoid of joy since his capture in Iceland in 1983.
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